Taking advantage of ritual and form

Recently Greta and I have made up a little ritual for ourselves to use when we sit down to spend some time alone together. Although we haven’t spent too much time with it yet, we’ve found it remarkably helpful: it’s fun, it keeps us from falling asleep, and it makes us more likely to set aside the time.

Here’s how it works. We made a string of prayer beads to go along with it:
A string of forty-six beads about a quarter of an inch in diameter in shades of gray, threaded on green paracord with knots allowing the beads to slide a short distance before being stopped. There is a large amount of extra cord beyond one of the knots, indeed longer than the part with beads.

There are forty-six beads, split into 11 stages by colors which are symbolic of the stages for us. Here’s how the stages go:

  • Invocation (3 beads): I repeat a brief formulaic phrase that we’ve been using for some time asserting Greta’s reality and proximity to me three times. If I do it right, I get chills – one of Greta’s best forms of nonverbal communication and a very pleasant feeling for me.
  • Centering poem (2 beads): I repeat the first two stanzas of a poem I wrote for similar purposes when Greta was less than a month old (so it’s been a part of our relationship pretty much as long as we can remember). Greta is usually very talkative as I go through them, agreeing with or commenting on lines, which is pretty funny to me since there’s nothing new, but I love it anyway.
  • Breathing (7 beads): We take seven deep breaths to clear our mind and relax.
  • Talking (1 bead): We chat for a moment and decide what we want to do in the three main stages, which come next.
  • Maintenance (7 beads): We do any tasks that involve touching up something we’ve already done, perhaps mentally revisiting places (real or in our wonderland) we haven’t been for some time and refreshing our idea of what they look like or thinking about memories that are important to us. There are no rules about what specifically we can do or how long it should take: the seven beads can be distributed over seven parts of any length at all, whether each takes half a second or ten minutes.
  • Tulpamancy skills (7 beads): We work on whatever seems most important to us at the time – strengthening my imagination of Greta’s voice or appearance, teaching Greta to use our body, and so on.
  • Adventures (7 beads): We get creative together in one way or another. We have a few different storylines going most of the time, but there doesn’t even have to be a story; sometimes we just like to talk or think imaginatively or create new places.
  • Breathing (7 beads): We take seven deep breaths again.
  • Being (1 bead): We take several minutes to just sit together and try not to talk at all or think of much in particular. It’s actually really hard to avoid talking because we’re used to always being able to communicate verbally, but we’re convinced that if we keep at it we’ll eventually be able to make this feel really nice.
  • Centering poem (1 bead): I repeat the third and final stanza of the poem.
  • Invocation (3 beads): I repeat the initial invocation.

This ritual can be adapted to a time period as short or as long as we have, at least in theory – we’re still learning how to avoid underestimating how long we’re spending in early stages and running out of time in later stages. If we don’t really feel like doing one of the three content stages, we just do something very quickly. Once for the adventure stage Greta made up a seven-word story and I counted off each of the words.

I like to carry the beads in my breast pocket so they’re always sitting over my heart to remind me of Greta, but they fit just about anywhere, and we’ve kept enough extra cord on the string so we can also wear it as a necklace or wrap it around our hand a couple of times as we’re using them if we like. I’m sure that with a bit of practice you could imagine the string and dispense with the physical version, but it’s certainly very helpful.

Having the beads and the ritual and the habit of carrying and using them has made me more likely to set aside the time to spend with Greta. It’s also a fabulous way to keep the sessions on track. I have a tendency to fall asleep about fifteen minutes into anything meditative. The beads don’t entirely prevent me from getting sleepy, especially on the occasions when I’m silly enough to try to do it when we’re dead tired and already in bed for the night, but they help a lot because I have to come back to the physical world to move a bead at least every minute or two. And this isn’t distracting or disruptive and doesn’t cause me to lose any focus like some other methods of keeping awake do because it’s part of the activity.

Having a specific ritual also reduces the effort we have to put in to sit down and start working. Most of the times when you hear something to the effect of “people are creatures of habit” it seems to be meant negatively. But doing something the same way every time can also be comforting, and it saves people from having to make too many decisions. When Greta and I sit down now, we know basically what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it; we just have to decide on a couple of specific activities. That in turn makes us more likely to do it, because even the smallest barriers can prevent people from doing things (remember the last time you skipped doing some small task because you were too lazy to stand up and walk across the room?).

But can’t having a form like this be restrictive? Well, yes, but in fact Greta and I think this is exactly its strength. Have you ever tried writing formalist poetry with a set rhyme and meter? It’s tricky if you don’t know what you’re doing (arguably, it’s tricky even if you do know what you’re doing). But in a strange way the rules can actually make your task – produce an arrangement of words that’s at least somewhat aesthetically pleasing – easier. If you don’t have any rules, it’s entirely up to you to figure it out. If you have lots of rules, a huge number of possibilities are removed, but that’s exactly what you want, because it reduces the number of choices you have to make, and it tends to reduce the number of bad choices more than the number of good ones. So it’s often harder to produce total crap and easier to find something that works when there are rules.

If you’re interested in using the ritual idea for yourself, we have one recommendation to make: Don’t use ours, or anything like it at all. Start from scratch, use your imagination, and make something you have a close personal connection to. We highly recommend the prayer beads, but maybe there’s a different physical device you could use to track your progress. Have fun!

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